NY: Akashic Books, 2007.
You might have seen Like Son on the bookseller’s shelf and passed it by. The portrait on the cover stares out with empty eyes that suggest the contents might be just as … provocative.
As one digs into the opening chapters of Felicia Luna Lemus’ novel, there will be no loss for words to describe the reading experience, the world of the story. Dismal. Miserable. Dispiriting. Perverse. If not quite hopeless, then harrowing. Then fascinating, penultimately persuasive, and finally a complete contradiction.
Like Son is a romance that refuses to be romantic. Not that the character wouldn’t be pleased to find happiness. It’s that history and reality keep finding ways to confound Frank, a woman in a man's mind and body, at every turn.
The novel opens as Frank’s father reappears out of nowhere. Not to rekindle a touching father-daughter relationship, but to get help dying. Dad is an incurable romantic whose natty clothes and personal style are his way of keeping the Anglo world at arm’s distance. But Frank’s mother is a nightmare from Hell, the complete opposite of her former husband. The mother, a highly successful plastic surgeon, punished her ex by bleeding him dry for child support even while denying him visitation rights.
Mother’s Laguna Hills home is a shit hole. Literally. Raw sewage floats out the bathtub drains of a rat pack house filled with trash. Her second husband had been raping the 9 year old Frank until the divorce when she was a young teen. But when the child wants to disclose the ugly truth, the mother demands her daughter remain silent, tell the court she thinks of Chip as her only real father.
It’s no wonder the girl leaves home the day she turns eighteen. Much of this story we get in flashback after the father dies and leaves Frank a cache of love letters, the photograph on the novel’s cover, and a book of poetry. The love letters bespeak a passionate romance between father and mother that bears no resemblance to the people they became.
In a variant on the title, like mother like daughter, the young lovers’ piropos converted to pusillanimity under the unremitting hatred of the maternal grandmother. Frank remembers accompanying the grandmother to the charity food bank, putting on airs of poverty when, in fact, the grandfather and grandmother owned vast agricultural acreage in Orange County. The act is part of the self-hatred of vendidos whose wealth accumulated from selling out other raza, and who hate the indio features of Frank’s grandfather and father.
After Frank’s dad dies, at dawn on Father’s Day in a romantic irony, he carries Dad’s ashes to the mother’s home. Mom refuses to admit the child, instead handing a wad of hundred dollar bills through the screen door with the curse that the child has too much of her father.
There’s an old truism that a woman eventually becomes her mother. The male equivalent is the aphorism of the title. In one sense, Frank is running from the former while pursued by the latter. So many parallels in her father’s history find mirror images in Frank’s. The portrait is of a Mexican bohemian named Carmen Mondragon but who takes the Nahuatl name Nahui Ollin. Ollin had presented the poems, a lover's gift, to Frank’s grandmother, who was leaving for Chicago that day.
In the strangest parallel, a Chicago train wreck kills a child who would have been Frank’s aunt. As the novel ends, Frank is broken up in a train wreck. Ollin, too, lost a child, a son, whom the mother suffocates accidentally in her own bed. Frank symbolically kills her own child when she refuses her mate Nathalie’s plea to have their own child.
Just as Ollin’s hopes for love with Frank’s grandmother disappeared when she left for Chicago, Frank’s lover, Nathalie, keeps disappearing. With all the crap that has come Frank’s way, it’s no wonder he goes about in a state of numbness that refuses to allow him to enjoy the romance that swirls about him.
Lemus, however, is not entirely cruel to Frank. He’s solidly grounded in reality, perhaps as antidote to romanticism and unreality. For instance, in the train wreck, Frank muses about the popular notion that catastrophes bring out the best in people. For Frank, nothing of the sort. Observing “I would be lying if I claimed I did anything but whimper with bloody snot smeared on my face. . . . There wasn’t a single bit of my brain that pondered if maybe our wreckage resembled the derailment that had killed my father’s sister in Chicago so many years before. I didn’t pray for my father to watch over me like some sort of guardian angel, I didn’t hope my mother would care, and I didn’t wish for Nathalie to cover me in kisses. I just lay unconscious in the demolished train.”
The rich ironies that infuse the novel would be funny, had Frank’s career not been so grim. For example, in a fit of uncharacteristic romanticism, Frank has a heart tattoo with Nathalie’s name carved into his chest, the day before Nathalie once again abandons him in a most painful manner. When the hospital treats Frank’s broken scab chest, they think he’s suffered a horrendous chest wound. All Frank can say is “if they only knew.”
A reader can pick at the gender issues in the novel, or not. Nathalie herself, Frank points out, in spite of herself, is merely normal. That's a good approach to this love story. With the life Frank's been pummeled with, his growth is to be hoped for and his gender, born or assumed, is beside the point. He's entitled to invent himself, and with the crap that's hit him, he's earned the right.
It’s not a spoiler to disclose that Nathalie comes home as the novel ends. Depending on what the reader believes is in Frank’s fate, it may be that his luck has changed, and love has finally found a way to make Frank happy. Or not.
While that photo on the cover may lead your favorite reader to think this an unusual gift, make Like Son a stocking stuffer this holiday season and your favorite reader will thank you for it.
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